Steve Haycox: We Prefer a Shiny Image of America





[Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.]

In a conversation with Dick Cavett published in The New York Times last week, David Brooks, one of the more thoughtful and effective conservative political analysts now writing, noted the American empire is in significant decline....

It might seem logical that literate Americans would turn to major professional historians for meaningful analyses of an American decline. But as most historians themselves acknowledge, there are a number of reasons why readers do not. First, detailed examination of something as amorphous as decline can be difficult reading, and it's not always written well. Second, the conclusions are necessarily speculative; the writer could be quite wrong. But by far, the most pervasive reason is that decline is not a story the American public wants to hear. It cuts hard against the grain of American optimism, exceptionality and nationalism.

The Texas Board of Education made this point graphically last week with the adoption of new social studies curriculum standards. By a series of strict party-line 10-to-5 vote, the board, which includes no historians, decided to eliminate Thomas Jefferson from a list of thinkers who inspired 18th-century revolution, eliminated any Latinos as historical role models, declared that there is no basis for the constitutional separation of church and state, and replaced the word "capitalism" with "free enterprise system," among other less egregious changes. This is writing history by emotion, rather than by facts. It is like making a medical diagnosis by Ouija board rather than by the study of anatomy and physiology....

In a perceptive new book, "Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History," Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan notes that societies use history to glorify national identity and that such use often becomes abuse when it violates the facts or the consensus toward which the facts drive. Brits and Americans, for example, don't want to acknowledge the superiority of the individual German soldier in World War II. The Japanese don't want to accept responsibility for killing as many as 50 million Chinese during that war. Hindus in India fight recognizing Muslim contributions to Indian history.

As the political manipulation of science has raised ire in informed society, so should the political manipulation of history. If America is in decline, we're better off knowing it than denying it.


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